Who deserves a blue plaque?
The History Centre at LSHTM is located in a building in Tavistock Place, about 10 minutes walk from the main School building in Keppel Street. Tavistock Place is close to Marchmont Street, a bustling shopping street with a lively local community. We researched the history of the building and developed cordial relations with the local Community Association and its chair Ricci de Freitas, who had published a book on the history of the street and had also researched our building.
He suggested the School might like to sponsor a plaque or a notice board with details about its different uses over time – it had variously been a chapel, the HQ of the Express Dairies, and of the Transport Police. The history board is coming and a blue plaque has been installed on the outside of the building. It states that Mary Anne Clarke, mistress of the Duke of York (of Grand Old Duke fame) had once lived in a building on the site. Our Faculty administrator mentioned it in the weekly newsletter. We were pleased that the lengthy process of getting everything in place , also involving the School Public Engagement officer, Vickie Bazalgette, had finally reached its conclusion.
But some of our non historian colleagues were less enthused. One researcher on sexual health asked me why we had supported the installation of a plaque to someone who had made her name by f***ing a member of the aristocracy. Another, more genteel, emailed to enquire why the plaque had been installed when the person commemorated had not achieved very much.
This is a local blue plaque scheme, not the national one, and it’s linked to the Community Association’s researches on who has lived in the street. Lenin was a past resident just over the road; the author Jerome K. Jerome lived nearby, and the comedian Kenneth Williams, whose parents had a hairdressers just round the corner, also has a plaque. Women are thin on the ground, reflecting their position in society for much of the time the street has been in existence, not gender bias on the part of the plaque installers.
Mary Anne achieved quite a lot, given her situation. Lacking funds from the Duke, she sold commissions in the army and the resultant scandal led to his temporary removal as Commander in Chief. Later imprisoned for libel, she fled to France where one of her daughters married into the Du Maurier family – so she is an ancestor of the novelist Daphne du Maurier. The plaque commemorates the role of women and the options for influence open to them at that time.
We also recalled that the School’s main building is in Keppel Street, a street called after the family of Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, and ancestor of the Duchess of Cornwall. There seem to be a few historical parallels to reflect on there as well.
We should be prepared to accept the past on its own terms, and not go seeking for heroes and heroines all the time. Blue plaques for mistresses are no bad thing.
Virginia Berridge, Director, Centre for History in Public Health (PHP)
The unveiling of the Mary Anne Clarke plaque and Tavistock Place history panel, took place on Saturday, 25th April 2015. This was part of a local history project coordinated by the Marchmont Association.